Thursday, January 27, 2022

Sujata Day on How Uncertainty inspired her to write and direct her own film

For Sujata Day, becoming a part of Issa Rei’s universe began with her quick following on Twitter.

“I followed her, she followed me, and after a couple of days she tweeted,“ I’m looking for a mixed-faced girl to play my best friend on a web series. ” I wrote back and said, “Hi, I’m not mixed, but this is how I look. Let me know.'”

All about the process of what became Ray’s YouTube series “The misadventures of a clumsy black girl“Was really scrappy. Day recalls that when Ray invited her to audition, the path led to someone’s house. The audition only took a few minutes, and just a few hours later, Ray emailed her to tell her that she had gotten the job. A few weeks later, the first episode was shot.

“It was just me, Issa, [and] I believe her brother was working with a video camera that was attached to a microphone, so no fancy gear or anything like that. We did our own hair, makeup and came in our own clothes, ”Day said. “After we finished filming, she thanked me and then I left and I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into ?! “And then everything exploded and we were shocked by the audience.”

In the 10 years since Ray downloaded first issue of “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube, she has built a television empire by completing the fifth and final season of her groundbreaking HBO show “Insecure” and several new projects in the works. Many of her co-writers on Clumsy Black Girl and Insecure have also had successful creative careers – including Day, whose directorial debut feature, Define Please, has screened at various film festivals across the country. Last fall, CAAMFest FORWARD named it Best Narrative Film at a Festival, and earlier this year won the Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Festival’s Fresh Voice of Narrative award.

Day’s journey to directing, writing, producing and starring in her own award-winning film takes her through the early years Ray saw the creation of Clumsy Black Girls and Insecure.

“Issa just inspired me to write more and write more accurately in accordance with my voice and my experience,” Day said. “This is really where the premise and seed of ‘Definitions, Please’ came from. I’m going to write about this girl who was a spelling champion in the past and may not be the stereotype of an Indian character playing in the media. And I want to make it real and true for others. “

Sujata Day (left) and Ritesh Rajan (right) in “Definition Please”, which Day wrote, directed, produced and starred.

Executive Produced by Mindy Kaling, “Please Decide,” in which Day plays Monica, who won the National Spelling Bee as a child. Since then, everyone in her hometown still remembers her for that one moment of glory. But her life did not turn out as expected. She lives at home and looks after her mom, makes money teaching other aspiring spelling winners, and hangs out with her high school best friend Christa (Laline), a bartender at a local bar.

Day used several elements of her upbringing in writing the film. But more broadly, she wanted to see a story that reflected the characteristics of the people she grew up with: her friends, relatives, and family friends in her hometown’s South Asian community.

Growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, an hour east of Pittsburgh, Day has always been very creative. She avidly read and wrote, studied Indian classical dance and performed in musicals in high school. In the meantime, she also excelled in her AP courses, which led to “this inner confusion:” Oh, I’m really good at this, and it’s obviously a great career path to go downstairs in terms of science. ” and technology, ”she said. “But I think I really wanted to write, play and perform.”

She tried to do both when she could. She studied engineering at the College of Case Western Reserve University, but also earned several points in theater. While studying abroad for a year in Australia, “I played a lot of plays and made a lot of friends in the theater, and it was here that I kind of decided, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do in my career.”

After graduation, she took a job at the consulting firm Accenture. She had to choose where she wants to work, so naturally she chose Los Angeles. Because her work schedule was flexible and the job was well paid, “In the meantime, I was meeting agents, doing auditions, taking acting classes, writing scripts, and then getting fired from Accenture a year later, which was really fantastic. because I got severance pay and unemployment, and then about six to eight months later, I ordered three national commercials, and that’s where my professional career started. “

It took Day over a decade to get to the point where she was stable, a reminder that “it takes so long for everything,” she said, noting that Ray’s journey to create Awkward Black Girl was also a big hit. a story of “gradual success”.

“I feel like when Hollywood anoints someone for instant success, this story is never true because that person worked for years before that instant success that people don’t know about,” she said. “Even with Issa, people don’t really know that she had two web series before Awkward Black Girl. And even when we started filming Awkward Black Girl, it was very clear that Awkward Black Girl would get better: better production quality, better stories. “

When Clumsy Black Girl Season 2 ended in 2013, Ray made a deal with HBO develop what has become “unsafe”. When the series finally went into production three years later, Ray asked Day if she would like to star in a pilot. On Day, filming this movie brought back a flood of memories that reminded her of how far Rei had come.

“I walked onto the set and it was incredible to remember the first episode of The Clumsy Black Girl, when I was on the HBO set with the colored women in charge and was in my trailer and got my hair, makeup and wardrobe done. Day said. “He showed such growth and perseverance.”

Day at the premiere of the first season of the series "Unreliable" in 2016 in Los Angeles.
Day at the 2016 Los Angeles premiere of the first season of Insecure.

Jason LaVerys via Getty Images

In the first three seasons, Day played Sarah, an employee of the protagonist Issa (played by Ray) in We Got Y’All, a dysfunctional educational non-profit organization. Day remembers that later in the first season, we had another of those full-cycle moments when the We Got Y’All staff took a group of students to the beach. This was one of the first large-scale filming of the show.

“Tears ran down my cheeks. And one of the little girls looked at me and asked, “Are you crying?” I thought: “No, no, this is the beach, the wind! The air seems to get into my contacts. ” I just lied, ”she said. “I look around, and there is a crane, and there are cameramen, and there is a video village, there are all the producers, Issa, the whole We Got Y’all family, and it just amazed me. I remember filming in the office of Issa’s father’s doctor in Inglewood with two other people – and now it’s a real show. “

Throughout her career, Day has written in a variety of forms, from short stories to screenplays. But watching Rae create Awkward Black Girl and Insecure from scratch and tell stories that reflected her “supercharged” strength Day in an attempt to achieve something similar.

The idea for what would become “Definition Please” first came to her mind in 2015 while taking improvisation lessons and performing regularly at the famous Upright Citizens Brigade. One of her lessons was about sketching, so she remembered her childhood memories of a spelling competition. In fourth grade, Day won her bee spelling class but lost in the first round of regional exams by misspelling the word “radish.” (“I wrote this with two ds instead of one, and it was terrible,” she recalls.)

“We had to roll out sketches every week, and one of my sketches was based on that experience,” she said. “It was called:“ Where are they now? Spelling Winners “. So, if you look at the spelling winners, you can see that they work for NASA, or develop robots, or win the World Poker Tour, doing really great, amazing things. So I was interested in the spelling bee winner who may not have lived up to his potential. “

A series of events inspired her to turn the sketch into a feature film. In 2016, she was selected to work at Sundance Scripting Studio, and in 2017, her friend, director Justin Chung, premiered his first film, Hook, at the festival. She then began writing the script for Definition Please and directed it in the summer of 2019.

As in the early days of The Clumsy Black Girl, the filming of Definitions Please was haphazard, hand-made. Day partially funded the film by posting it on her credit cards. Her production designer and wardrobe manager went to high school with her. The house in which most of the film was filmed is the home of Day’s parents. And Esha Chundra, who plays young Monica in the film, is a family friend.

Day (center) with cast "Definition Please" (Left to right: Parvesh China, Cameron Fife, Mira Simhan, Maya Kapoor, Sankrish Bala, Sonal Shah, Ritesh Rajan, Anna Hajja, Tim Chiu, Laline, Kunal Dudeker and Katrina Bowden) at the afterparty before the film premiere on September 25 at Culver City, California.
Day (center) with “Definition Please” cast (from left to right: Parvesh China, Cameron Fife, Mira Simhan, Maya Kapoor, Sankrish Bala, Sonal Shah, Ritesh Rajan, Anna Hajja, Tim Chiu, Laline, Kunal Dudheker and Katrina Bowden) at the post-premiere party on September 25 in Culver City, California.

Amanda Edwards via Getty Images

Intertwined with Please Define are themes that are relevant to many Asian Americans, such as the stigma against talking about mental health, the pressure of a model minority, and how Asian Americans often boil down to that. It should not be noted that the film is a comedy and life drama in which Asian American characters exist on their own. But, unfortunately, this is so, since there are not so many of these roles yet.

“I think that’s what attracted a lot of my actors to the script,” Day said. For example, Anna Hajja, who plays Jaya, Monica’s mom, “said yes right away, because the character was very different from many of the mostly one-dimensional characters she played over the years.

“She plays a lot of South Asian moms on television – for example, she played Priyanka Chopra’s mom in Quantico. She played Jamila Jamil’s mom in Nice Place. She received a lot of scripts and the South Asian character moms were very strict and controlling and wanted their kids to do certain things, ”Day said. “She told me that her character was such a breath of fresh air for her to read, and she had such a funny storyline in our film that she couldn’t give it up.”

Right now, Day is trying to bring “Definition Please” to a wider audience by looking for a distributor. She has even more projects on the horizon, including a television series based on the short film she wrote and directed in 2016, Cowboy and the Indian. She also somehow managed to prove herself very productive during the pandemic, writing scripts for a couple more feature films that she hopes to direct in the near future. Continuing to tell more Asian American stories, Day fondly recalls those early years of The Clumsy Black Girl.

“I think it inspired all of us – the actors, the crew, everyone – to just go out and create our own content, no matter what, even if people reject you or pass on an idea,” she said. “Don’t worry about these passages, just go and do it.”

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